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Climate ChangeUnheralded Environmentalist: Jimmy Carter’s Green Legacy

Unheralded Environmentalist: Jimmy Carter’s Green Legacy


With the previous president now in hospice care, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Kai Bird looks back on Jimmy Carter’s environmental record within the White House — from his sweeping protection of Alaska’s wild lands to his efforts to push the nation toward renewable energy.

The indignant Alaskans gathered in Fairbanks to burn the president’s effigy. It was early December 1978 and President Jimmy Carter was that unpopular in Alaska. A couple of days earlier Carter had issued an unusual executive order, designating 56 million acres of Alaskan wilderness as a national monument. He did so unilaterally, using a bit of known 1906 Antiquities Act that ostensibly gave the president the manager power to designate buildings or small plots of historical sites on federal land as national monuments. No previous president had ever used the obscure act to create an enormous wilderness area. But Congress was refusing to pass the vital laws, so Carter decided to act alone.

The Alaskan political establishment was flabbergasted. Despite the unpopularity of the weird sequestration order, Carter announced that it might stand until Congress agreed to pass its own laws. For the following two years Carter stubbornly held his ground, explaining that he wasn’t against oil and gas development, but that he wouldn’t accept any bill that jeopardized the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — the calving grounds and migratory route for certainly one of the world’s last great caribou herds.

Finally, Alaska’s senior politician, Senator Ted Stevens agreed in late 1980 to interrupt the impasse. At one point of their wrangling over what became generally known as the Alaska Lands Act, Senator Stevens argued that one small region must be excluded from the proposed wilderness refuge. “Well, let’s check that,” Carter said. The president then rolled out an oversized map on the ground of the Oval Office. Stevens was astonished to see the president on his hands and knees, inspecting the realm in query. “No, I don’t think you’re right,” Carter observed. “You see, this little watershed here doesn’t actually go into that one. It comes over here.” The senator needed to concede the purpose, and on the automobile ride back to Capitol Hill he turned to his aide and remarked, “He knows more about Alaska than I do.”

The Alaska Lands Act signed by Carter in 1980 was the most important single expansion of protected lands in American history.

That was vintage Carter, the president who all the time paid attention to details. But it surely also illustrates Carter’s legacy as a president dedicated to protecting the environment. Carter was still negotiating with Senator Stevens weeks after his defeat within the November 1980 election. But on December 2, 1980, this now lame-duck president signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, creating greater than 157 million acres of wilderness area, national wildlife refuges, and national parks — tripling the dimensions of the nation’s Wilderness Preservation System and doubling the dimensions of the National Park System. It was, and still is, the most important single expansion of protected lands in American history.

Greater than 4 a long time later, before he entered hospice care in his easy Plains, Georgia home in February, Carter signed an amicus transient, appealing to the courts and President Joe Biden, not to allow the constructing of a gravel road through one small portion of the designated wilderness area. It was his last act in the general public arena. And it succeeded: On March 14, the Interior Department canceled a plan that might have allowed the road’s construction.

Carter was all the time annoyed when pundits proclaimed him a “model” ex-president, but a failed president. And he was right to be annoyed because his was actually a quite consequential presidency, and no more so than on questions of conservation and the environment.

Carter reviews maps of Alaska with Senator Ted Stevens.
Anchorage Day by day News / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Early in his presidency, within the spring of 1977, he famously vetoed a slew of water projects, mostly small dams and river diversion facilities, in dozens of congressional districts across the country. Federal funding of such projects was often a waste of taxpayer funds. And these boondoggles, all the time encouraged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, often harmed the rivers’ natural habitat. Carter knew he was doing the fitting thing — despite the fact that it eroded his support in a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Carter’s instincts for conservation had been evident earlier when, as governor of Georgia, he had opposed unbridled industrial development, favored tough regulations to guard the state’s coastal wetlands, and endorsed the creation of two major seashores and river parks.

But when Carter got to the White House, he shocked many observers by appointing James Gustave Speth, age 35, to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. Speth was regarded by the Washington establishment as a radical on environmental issues. A Yale-trained lawyer and Rhodes Scholar, he had co-founded in 1970 the Natural Resources Defense Council, a troublesome advocacy group on environmental issues. Speth, who later served as dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, used his position within the administration to coach Carter in regards to the dangers of acid rain, carbon dioxide buildup within the atmosphere, and the likely extinction of 100,000 species throughout the next quarter century.

Just before leaving office, Carter released a prophetic report, largely written by Speth, that predicted “widespread and pervasive changes in global climatic, economic, social and agricultural patterns” if humanity continued to depend on fossil fuels. The Global 2000 Report back to the President became an early clarion call for scientists studying climate change.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Danielle Brigida / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

History will judge Carter as a president ahead of his time. He set a goal of manufacturing 20 percent of the nation’s energy from renewable sources by 2000 (a goal that ended up not being reached until 2018). In an age of soaring energy prices and stagflation, he famously wore a cardigan on national television during a hearth chat during which he urged Americans to lower their thermostats and conserve energy. He put solar water heating panels on the roof of the White House, telling reporters, “A generation from now this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it may well be only a small a part of certainly one of the best and most fun adventures ever undertaken by the American people.” Mockingly, while Carter put federal money into solar energy research, a couple of years later his successor Ronald Reagan ripped the solar panels off the White House roof — and a couple of are still displayed in museums.

Carter spent much of his time in office attempting to cope with energy issues. He proposed a 283-page National Energy Act (NEA) that included a tax on oversized, gas-guzzling cars, tax credits for home insulation, and investments in solar and wind technologies. Carter insisted that his energy bill was the “moral equivalent of war.” In response, The Wall Street Journal labeled it with the sarcastic acronym MEOW. Republican Party chairman Bill Brock charged that the president was “driving people out of their family cars.” Michigan Democratic Congressman John Dingell told Carter aides that it was an “asinine bill.” The laws nevertheless passed the House, but then encountered far more opposition within the Senate. Carter complained in a personal White House diary, “The influence of the oil and gas industry is unbelievable, and it’s unimaginable to arouse the general public to guard themselves.”

Carter’s “malaise speech” was a sermon about limits — an un-American idea for a people ate up the manna of manifest destiny.

The ultimate bill, passed in October 1978, was an advanced compromise — but it surely did impose penalties on gas-guzzling cars, required higher efficiency standards for home appliances, and provided tax incentives to develop wind and solar technologies. But environmentalists would criticize it for also providing incentives to mine domestic coal and produce corn-based gasohol. Carter’s goal here was to reduce the country’s dependence on imported Arab oil — and on this he was marginally successful, resulting in a decline in oil imports during his term in office. But in an unintended consequence, environmentalists would complain that an element of the bill required that any recent power plants be fired with fuels aside from oil or natural gas. In practice, that meant coal received a significant boost.

Looking back, probably the most consequential a part of the energy bill was the phased decontrol of natural gas prices. This deregulation eventually stimulated exploration for natural gas in the USA and created the market conditions a long time later for the progressive fracking technology that might make the country a significant supplier of liquefied natural gas.

Politically speaking, Carter’s energy policies were criticized by either side. He was faulted by liberals for enacting an excessive amount of deregulation, while conservatives perceived him as an enemy of the oil and gas industry.

Carter fly fishing near Moose, Wyoming in August 1978.

Carter fly fishing near Moose, Wyoming in August 1978.
Bettmann via Getty Images

If environmentalists should remember one thing in regards to the Carter presidency it must be his so-called “malaise speech” in July 1979. It was a unprecedented sermon about America’s limits — a most un-American idea for a people continuously ate up the manna of manifest destiny. “We’ve all the time had a faith that the times of our youngsters could be higher than our own,” he said. “Our persons are losing that faith … In a nation that was once pleased with labor, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too a lot of us now are inclined to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” Taking a page straight from Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (which Carter had recently read), Carter observed, “Human identity is not any longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things doesn’t satisfy our eager for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which don’t have any confidence or purpose.”

This was the born-again Southern Baptist in Jimmy Carter speaking, the Southern populist, warning his people in regards to the have to be aware of the environment’s fragility and limitations. It was not a message most Americans desired to hear. But it surely stays a key a part of his presidential legacy.


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